Supporting Care Staff – Caring For The Carers

Liz Willetts, Head of Education and Training, Social Care Association, stresses the importance of caring for care workers…

Caring for Carers is a phrase that often appears in leaflets and articles, and discussions about improving the quality of care provision for people who use care services. It almost invariably means the informal carers, who are partners, family and friends.

But who cares for the growing workforce of care workers, whose job roles demand an enormous and varied range of skills and tasks? This was one of the questions raised at the recent Residential Forum Conference on The Future for the Workforce in Residential Care. Don Brand, a trustee of the Residential Forum, and consultant working with the Social Care Institute for Excellence, government departments in England and the devolved Administrations and national social care organisations throughout the UK, pointed out:

High quality services are unlikely to be delivered by workers lacking support and confidence in their own value and abilities, who fail to see the correlation between having their own needs met and having the ability to meet the needs of others.

Perhaps it’s the ‘Oxygen Mask’ approach to care. Those in-flight demonstrations instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before attempting to help anyone else have a useful message. It’s one that care workers often give to family members, without taking heed of how much it also applies to themselves.

So where does that vital care and support come from? First of all from caring organisations and employers. Good leadership based on a sound value base, motivates staff. Clear policies and appropriate training, good internal communication, and a culture of appreciation rather than blame, show frontline staff that they are respected and valued.

Supporting Frontline Staff, an ADSW project co-ordinated by Addie Stevenson in Scotland in 2003 -2005, highlighted these and other issues in the local authority context. This is not just about being nice to people – there is clearly a business case to be made for supporting staff doing what are often challenging or difficult jobs.

Improved staff recruitment and retention figures, and better absence management are just two examples to show that a well supported staff group costs less, maintains its capacity to provide services, and is likely to provide a better quality of service.

The Golden Rule, taken from the Eden Alternative for caring for older people says that: As managers do to staff, staff do to residents.

But Managers need support too, both from above and below. In today’s mixed economy of care provision, with large and small organisations in the voluntary, private and statutory sectors, their needs are strikingly similar in principle: an organisational culture that supports good practice – more carrots than sticks – and a loyal team prepared to go the extra mile when the situation requires it.

They do this not because they are paid more or coerced, but because they recognise the need and are willing to give. A good example of this is the number of off-duty staff who offered all kinds of help when residential care homes were flooded recently.

Much of the reward for care jobs comes from service users. Ask the majority of care workers what they find satisfying or fulfilling about their jobs, and the chances are they will talk about being able to make a difference to people’s lives.

Being valued and appreciated by service users is as important, if not more so, as being valued and appreciated by management. Where staff are empowered to do a good job, the benefits are clear to see, and the satisfaction of service users is reflected in the job satisfaction of workers empowered and supported to do a good job.

Staff can care for each other too. Employees doing mundane repetitive jobs on assembly lines talk about the camaraderie that exists between them and their colleagues, that makes a dull job worthwhile.

The working environment is different of course in a care setting, and good care staff do not engage in banter with each other to the exclusion of the person being cared for.

However, the ‘social’ element of social care is important to both for service users and staff. For service users it is often an opportunity to stay connected to, and in touch with, the world. For staff, the degree to which they are engaged with their organisation and individuals within it is a factor that significantly affects performance, job satisfaction and wellbeing.

Des Kelly, President of the Social Care Association 2007-8, has chosen as the theme for his presidential year, Valuing Social Care, and emphasises the need to value the workforce. In his presentation at the Residential Forum Conference, he referred to the Gallup Q12 survey of employee engagement. This management tool highlights twelve factors that, in a good organisation that cares for and supports its staff well, will be ticked by all employees.

Perhaps what is beginning to emerge is a ‘Circle of Care’, rather than a linear or cascade model, where traditionally the level of care and support from the top of the organization has been reproduced and passed on by care staff to service users. In the 21st century, where both needs and services can be complex, and relationships interdependent, this offers an opportunity for broader participation.

In good organizations, whether this means small care homes or large Local Authorities, satisfied service users are important agents in the job-satisfaction good care workers get from their roles. To make this meaningful, consultation  with service users and opportunities for participation in planning processes is really important.

Getting caring relationships right is so fundamentally important to the quality of life for all concerned, that breaking the circle has implications for everyone.  And it might be useful to reflect that the care workers of today might be the managers of tomorrow, and perhaps all of us, one day, will be service users.